Sunday, 3 March 2013

Batting and fear - a coda

Alex Massie marked the eightieth anniversary of Bodyline with an excellent Spectator blog. Amongst other things, it brought home how distant it is. Bodyline exists now in those few flickering black and white images of Woodfall staggering away, and also in the layers of myth and memory that surround it. There's also the amusing, but still hovering apparition of the 1984 mini-series, with its catch-line of 'The Day England Declared War On Australia', and Hugo Weaving as a dastardly Jardine: "Harild... lig theory..." as his famous line used to go...

So one sentence in Alex's piece jumped out: 'Perhaps no more than (at most) 25% of the overs England delivered that series were bowled to Bodyline fields.'

Having just written the post below this one on the changing nature of fear in batting and read some of the comments underneath it*, this seemed like a piece of Machiavellean genius worthy of Weaving's lofty fop. Knowing that something bad is coming, but not necessarily when, is a fear that's set in childhood. It's easy to imagine how it felt to suddenly see that legside ring tighten around you, with Larwood at the end of his run... Such a thing affects not just the psychology of facing it, but of waiting for it to happen, too.

What's easy to forget is how physically vulnerable a batsman was eight decades ago. No helmets, obviously, but more than that, no real thigh pads, no chest or arm guards, barely any gloves... Young pups might find it hard to comprehend, but a batsman might have had on their hands a thin covering of some kind of flannel, often with an open palm and with sausage padding stitched onto the fingers. They might even have worn spikes, a flimsy rubber mould intended to repel the worst of the impact (there's a picture of Jardine batting in a pair here).

As late as 1970, when Colin Cowdrey was flown in to face the onslaught of Lillee and Thomson at the age of 41, he opened his suitcase to reveal home-made foam-rubber padding he'd improvised after watching the Australian attack on the TV highlights. David Lloyd, who opened against the pair, half-joked about having a folded towel as a thigh-pad. Facing very fast bowling then was different to facing it now. Part of the reason that technique has been able to shift from 'classical' methods is down to the emancipation brought by better gear (or in the case of Bodyline, any gear).

In everything other than combat sports, physical danger is supposed to be a by-product of competition. We live in more cynical and knowing times than the cricketers of the Bodyline series, so it's easy to overlook the mental shock that being deliberately targeted would have provoked. Here was a stark choice: fend the ball towards our trap, or be hit.

Part of Bodyline's devastation was its newness, its intimations of the future.

* This blog is blessed to have so many good and regular commentators who know more than I do: Russ, John Halliwell, Tim Newman, Brian Carpenter, David Barry and many more. Thank you all.


awbraae said...

I found Weaving much more threatening as a sneering upper class git with an arsenal of ferocious miners than as Agent Smith.

John Halliwell said...

OB, the day I believe I know more than you about the great game, I shall declare my innings closed, tuck bat under arm, and shuffle off into the sunset.

That figure of 25% came as a big surprise. Larwood must have been a glorious sight in his pomp. Ian Peebles, who probably faced Larwood when playing for Middlesex against Notts, captured the great bowler’s action:

‘He ran about 18 yards, accelerating with controlled rhythmical strides, on the last of which his shoulders opened with a long swing of his fully extended arms. His right hand described a great arc starting from near the calf of his leg, and, at full pressure, his knuckles would touch the pitch on his follow-through. Coordination was perfect, so that the whole concerted effort was applied to the moment of delivery.’ Robertson-Glasgow wrote: “In cricket between the wars, the two most magnificent sights that I have seen were Hammond batting and Larwood both these cricketers I have found something heroic, something of immortal fire, which conquers argument.’

Then there was Thommo: “I enjoy hitting a batsman more than getting him out. I like to see blood on the pitch.’ Then there was Statham, who, so legend has it, warned the batsman he was about to bowl a bouncer.’ Where did Larwood stand between those two extremes?

Russ said...

Jon, you are far too kind.

There is a fascinating cultural sub-text to the leg theory response.

Australians condemned it. Squealers perhaps, but they straight-away changed the law in Shield cricket to ban intimidating bowling, then campaigned globally for the same. There is, as ever, a straight talking practicality to their (our) sport: you play by the laws, and if the play is not right, you change the law.

Plum Warner was, by contrast, all about diplomacy, praising Larwood and Jardine's tactics to their face and the MCC, making noises about excessive barracking to try and switch the blame, then writing against bodyline in the press and trying to console Woodfull. Even a year later, when most of the British press turned on leg theory, after first the West Indies tried it on England, then Notts on Lancashire, Warner was hedging his bets. Condemning it, but with an appeal to the spirit of cricket, rather than a change in the laws.

And outside the committee rooms of the MCC lies Larwood, thoroughly stitched up, but willing to make noise. No "it's hard being me" and re-integration then. But in terms of cricket-culture, I am not sure either nation has changed much in 80 years. Or might ever do.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, this is from Frank Woolley's autobiography (1935):

"In my estimation a great deal too much fuss is made when a batsman is hit. After all, few bowlers are fast and most blows are glancing blows.

It has to be borne in mind that the majority of players nowadays are protected by thick pads under their clothing as well as over their legs. This weak practice has come into the game since the War. For many years at the beginning of my career when there was much more, and in many cases, faster bowling than there is now I never wore any kind of protection except pads ... I am inclined to think this padding up ... may be the cause of some of the bad batting one sees."

Graeme said...

that 25% stat sounds about right - we know that Gubby did not bowl bodyline, mummy, Verity played in 4 matches and Voce missed the 4th test. A quick reckoning says that England bowled 825 overs. Verity, Hammond, Mitchell and Allen bowled 449 - say 55%. Of the remaining 376 overs, it is easy to imagine Voce, Larwood and Bowes delivering 170 conventional ones - babout 17 per innings between them.

Cricket Mania said...

Bodyline ball was always nightmare for batsman however nowadays fast bowler don’t use bodyline and I am very surprised to see the stats of 25% and its really shocking .